Author: Franziska Eckardt
Co-Author: Willem-Jan Velderman
Figure 1 Stokes Croft
Recently, I travelled to Bristol for an ESRC seminar ‘Neighbourhood Ways of Knowing and Working’. Before the start of the seminar, I had some spare time, so I decided to go out for a little walk to discover the city. On my way, I suddenly realised that the rather grey cityscape was starting to change around me as I progressed – more and more houses with colourful painted exterior walls and catchy messages appeared. I found that the whole district – called Stokes Croft according to my map – seemed to talk to me (see Fig. 1).
Later that day at the Seminar, speakers from all over the UK presented different examples of how citizens at the neighbourhood level were starting to find ways to express their community interests and how they were addressing local institutional barriers. The seminar drew to a close with the final speaker – Chris Chalkely –presenting his talk about “Taking back property by using art in public” in Stokes Croft (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bristol/content/articles/2007/09/06/prsc_feature.shtml)
Returning to the Netherlands, I recalled clearly one particular picture from Chris’s presentation: a man holding a sign with the words written on it “93% of local people say no to Tesco” and a big slogan “think local – no Tesco – our council must listen” (Fig. 2). This slogan reminded me of research recently performed by my CHEPS colleagues, on the subject of “Waste Water Injection in North-East Twente”(http://doc.utwente.nl/99513/1/R301_InDepth.pdf).
Figure 2 Boycott TESCO
The case study discusses a controversial situation of waste water injections in the Twente region, located in the eastern Netherlands. The controversy arose when a small group of concerned citizens from northeast Twente region mobilised to try to improve their direct surroundings. The reason for this was that they were worried about the local underground waste water injections in former gas fields being performed by the Dutch oil company NAM (De Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij) since the mid-2000’s. The NAM was extracting oil in the neighbouring Drenthe province using steam, in a process similar to fracking, and had come up with the ways to store the by-product waste water by injecting it into already exhausted gas fields in Twente (see Fig. 3).
Figure 3 Waste Water Injection in North East Twente
Local citizens’ concerns were related to subsidence, and the potential for earthquakes and calamitous water pollution. To contest the prevailing professional expert consensus that these activities were safe, the group of ‘smart’ citizens gathered more and more knowledge proving that their concerns about the waste water injections were legitimate (see Fig. 4).
Figure 4 The rejected citizen knowledge 3 examples
However, various political bodies neglected citizens’ concerns and the evidence they presented, on the grounds that citizens’ knowledge could not be regarded as formal expert knowledge. It took a public TV report by the provincial broadcaster (RTV Oost) in December 2014, for citizens and the waste water injection case to really receive the firm attention of local politicians and experts. An increasing amount of expert research as well as empirical findings confirmed citizens’ concerns that the waste-water injections seemed to be less safe than had been previously promoted by the NAM (e.g. waste water bacteria seriously corroded the pipelines in the ground, necessitating an emergency halt to pumping still in force today). From that moment the issue became politically highly sensitive, with local, provincial and national governmental bodies all attempting in their own way to address this issue by setting it on the policy agenda.
Both the Dutch waste-water injection case as well as the Stokes Croft street art activities are situations where local (smart) residents took matters into their own hands. Whether by drawing art or gathering a citizens’ knowledge dossier, in both cases citizens found their way to raise their voices and express their community interests. In the waste-water injection case, local residents were able to become local experts who can be helpful in revealing – and potentially therefore solving – local and regional problems. Making better use of this “smart citizen” knowledge could potentially be extremely useful for local authorities to improve the overall quality of local decision making. In conclusion, we would like to return to the picture mentioned at the beginning of this post – “think local – the council must listen” as it chimes perfectly with our wider message: local authorities need to consider much more systematically the ways they can listen to the voices of their citizens and receive their signals which can contribute to developing well informed policy solutions to these problems.
Many thanks to Antonia Layard and the Economic and Social Research Council for their invitation to attend the workshop and to write this Blog post. We would also like to thank the Institute of Innovation and Governance Studies at the University of Twente for their support in this project, and all interviewees who gave their time in our research. Paul Benneworth helped us with the text layout and proofing. Any errors or omissions remain the responsibilities of the authors.
About Franziska Eckardt
Franziska Eckardt is a PhD student of Dr. Paul Benneworth at CHEPS since September 2016. She works on the Knowledge Matter@ESRC_KnowMatt project. Before her PhD trajectory Franziska was providing research assistance for Dr. Paul Benneworth on the research project “Global Science Spaces” as well as for Jos van den Broek on the research topic “Global Pipelines, Cross-border Buzz”. In addition, she participated in a Research Master Honours programme at the University of Twente. She can be found on LinkedIn.
About Willem-Jan Velderman
Willem-Jan Velderman is a student Public Administration, research assistant of Dr. Paul Benneworth at the University of Twente, the Netherlands and is currently working on the Plugging In Smart Citizens as Experts project (case: waste water injection in northeast Twente). He is currently also providing assistance for two local government research and information organisations, viz. the Twente Municipal Clerk’s group and Kennispunt Twente. He can be found on LinkedIn.